Doris Kearns Goodwin is an award-winning American biographer, historian, and political commentator who specializes in analyzing the administrations of United States presidents. Her latest book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” details how past presidents dealt with crisis.
In today’s polarized political environment, she often gets asked, “Are these the worst of times?”
To that, she answers, “History can provide a perspective.” She cited difficult periods throughout the nation’s history, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II.
“We don’t know how this period is going to end. But I think the one hopeful thing is that … the citizens are active,” Goodwin said. “If the citizens are awakened now to the fact that we’re in a very serious situation … and if young people voted more than ever before, and women are [in politics] more than ever before, new people entering, I think we have to have hope.”
Host Don Marsh’s on-stage conversation with Goodwin at the St. Louis County Library aired on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. She discussed the recent midterm elections and her interest in past presidents, whom she refers to as “her guys,” specifically: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Marsh: Why did you write your book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times?”
Goodwin: I started it five years ago. I wrote it in part because when I finish each one of my long, fat books and I have to go to the next president, I always feel a sense of betraying the one before, because I have to move all of his books out of my study to make room for the new guy … So I decided that instead of doing that and finding a new president to write about, that I’d like to just take “my guys,” as I sometimes like to call them because I feel so familiar with them. I don’t know why people would imagine it’s so much fun [writing about] dead presidents, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
Marsh: Who of “your guys” would be most active on Twitter today?
Goodwin: No question, Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, I think if Teddy came back today, he could actually give a run for President Trump, more than almost anybody alive I can think of. Mainly because he was a colorful character, he was entertaining, they said about him that it was like a boy following a circus – when he was in town you couldn’t put your eyes anywhere else – he had that capacity for short statements.
Marsh: What do women bring to the table in politics that men don’t?
Goodwin: Studies show that [women] tend to be more collaborative, more willing to compromise, go across party aisles, because they’ve been doing that all their lives. But I think most importantly now, at a time when we’ve seen Washington so broken for so long, just if there’s new people coming in who still believe in politics. … The fact that there are new people entering, not just women, but new people who still believe in the system and can bring some of that outsider status from having been a leader as a teacher or doctor … I think they’re bringing that idealism back into the system.
Marsh: Is there a single definition of leadership?
Goodwin: I don’t think there is. … I would argue it’s being able to mobilize people to join together in a common cause that’s for the common good – that’s what at least my four guys did at their best. And that’s an extraordinary thing, when you have the leaders and the citizens able to work together to make economic opportunity, or to make social justice better or to save us from some external threat. I think we have to just remember what real leadership is like in order to be looking for it again and judging the people we are voting for by a certain series of traits that emphasize what leadership is.